There’s no doubt in my mind that fashion-designer-turned-director Tom Ford has a masterpiece in him somewhere. His 2009 debut A Single Man was an interesting work that suggested that maybe his intense vision as a meticulous stylist wasn’t exactly suited for an intimate, small cast drama. Ford took the note and his follow-up, the gleefully trashy Nocturnal Animals, makes much more deliberate strides to match the arty perfume commercial pretension of the his visual obsessions to a more appropriately detached work of cinematic abstraction. In its best moments, Nocturnal Animals nearly touches the transcendent modes of exquisite trash that wins me over so fully in titles like Phase IV, Beyond the Black Rainbow, and The Neon Demon. Ford has seemingly accepted his role as an art curator & visual stylist here, aiming more for a well-constructed image than an emotionally engaging narrative. Nocturnal Animals still feels oddly restrained, though, and the director hesitates to follow through on the film’s more exciting, disorienting impulses, restraining it from becoming the soaring cinematic achievement Ford will surely make someday. Hopefully, it’ll be someday soon.
Amy Adams stars as an art gallery curator struggling to hold onto a flailing marriage with an indifferent business dick, played by Armie Hammer. Their imperfect, handsomely tailored reverie is disrupted by a package containing a manuscript for a new novel from the curator’s first husband, played by Jake Gylenhaal. This framing device sets up three competing storylines: the narrative of the novel, flashbacks to the bickering that dissolved the first marriage, and an endless parade of shots of Amy Adams thinking & reading in bed. All three of these narrative threads are dripping with melodrama, but only one of them is consistently entertaining to behold. The novel, which plays almost like a parody of macho fiction scribes like Bret Easton Ellis & Cormac McCarthy, follows a family who are derailed from a road trip by some West Texas hooligans who rape & murder all but one surviving member. After a years-long pursuit with the help of a grizzled law man, an absurdist terror brought to life by a top of his game Michael Shannon, those hooligans are brought to a justice of a kind, but at a devastating cost. There’s some kind of parable here about the flawed nature of revenge, but the point Ford’s trying to make doesn’t really matter all that much in the end, given how little attention the “real” world drama of the art curator’s love life is given in comparison to the crime novel’s sensationalist violence & self-doubting masculinity. I like how the novel’s years-long search for retribution mirrors the frustration of constantly performing mental autopsies on a past failed romance, including the incessant impulse to return to the scene of the crime in both cases. However, I’d rather that the art curator’s half either match the novel’s narrative significance so that both halves are equally strong or for the film to not try to make a point at all. As is, their connection feels a little thin considering the effort they take to merge thematically.
The one thing the Amy Adams end of this fractured narrative does accomplish is to contextualize Nocturnal Animals as a work of Art, rather than a conventional feature film. The opening credits are a stunning, immersive gaze into a gallery exhibit where flabby erotic dancers shake their naked bodies in a Twin Peaks void of sparklers, confetti, and tiny American flags. At a fancy cocktail party between artsy types, Adams rattles on about “junk culture, total junk” and a swishy Michael Sheen chides her (along with the audience) to “Enjoy the absurdity of our world. It’s a lot less painful when you do.” Gyllenhaal’s frustrated novelist even laments at one point about how painful & vulnerable it is to make divisive art that seemingly no one likes. Nocturnal Animals feels most alive when Ford drops the pretense of trying to make a point and instead lovingly shoots his beautiful sets & impeccable costumes without any semblance of making them narratively significant. His art curator framing device works best as an instruction manual on how best to appreciate what he’s trying to accomplish in the film, rather than a participation in its thematic goals. I have very little interest in the way Ford’s narratives clash fragile artsy types against the unhinged threat of dangerously macho hicks, but any abstracted moment where he carefully posed naked bodies before blinding red fabric voids on top of a classical music score had me drooling in my chair. I’m not convinced Nocturnal Animals has anything useful or novel to say about the frivolity of revenge or the human condition, but it often works marvelously as an art gallery in motion (when it’s not hung up on watching Amy Adams think & read herself through another lonely night).
I’m loving the new weird territory Tom Ford explores here; I just think he can afford to get a whole lot weirder. There’s a third act shift into audience disorientation in Nocturnal Animals that I found far more exciting than any of the film’s various moral dilemmas and moments of bitter melodrama. Ford cuts from one reality to the next in jarring transitions where you sometimes aren’t even sure if you’re watching a scene or a still photograph. If this narrative jumble between its various storylines lead to some kind of a psychological break along the lines of a Persona or a Mulholland Drive, I might be singing its praises (the way I have been with its fellow exquisite trash pieces Tale of Tales & The Neon Demon) as one of the best films of 2016. It instead leads to a much more pedestrian narrative about revenge & bruised emotions: a hollow, although beautiful, shell of what could have been. I doubt Ford would be interested in doing so, but I’d love to see the director move into an even trashier genre than a pulpy crime story in the future. If he left behind his impulse to make a narrative point about life & humanity and instead applied his stylist skills to a horror of sci-fi genre pic, where the stakes are lowered from the heights of an intimate drama & the thrills are more or less predetermined, he’d feel way more free to let loose & deliver that weirdo masterpiece I’m convinced is in his imminent future. Nocturnal Animals very nearly gets there and it’s fascinating to watch him reach for it in his own carefully meticulous way, but he needs to loosen up just a little bit to arrive at that accomplishment.